Shin Godzilla

Shin Godzilla

About a quarter of the way through this thing I thought "This is fun, but can I really sit through a whole 'nother hour and a half of this?"

This answer ended up, easily, being "yes."

This shouldn't really "work" on a great number of levels. For starters the cast is obscenely large and unwieldy, which obviously serves the short term goal of crafting a political farce but seems counterintuitive to creating an engaging, two-hour kaiju film.

It is, also, a satire of governmental negligence and impotence in the face of national catastrophe. The absolute stasis of the governing forces for most of the film's runtime is the antithesis of "propulsive." We watch a large assortment of bureaucrats argue with one another in drab rooms accomplishing quite literally nothing and occasionally cut to Godzilla destroying shit.

Finally: the movie looks... bad? Kind of? The photography never feels fully in the filmmaker's control (that his background is overwhelmingly in animation, I discovered afterwards, makes a lot of sense). The digitally-shot images appear totally uncrafted. No sense of atmosphere or style. It's largely as drab and cheap-looking as your average local commercial. A far cry from the polish of the American MonsterVerse.

And yet somehow, some way, each of these (at first glance) drawbacks not only become non-issues in the context of the story being told, they end up serving the story in ways I really couldn't have anticipated.

The cast is massive, sure. And even by the end I really wasn't quite clear on who was who. But, in a way, it doesn't really matter. And the film's intrinsic Japanese-ness feels like the cornerstone of why. Ultimately, despite a load of good-faith internal debate, every character is serving the same agenda, the same general ideals. The Japanese government and, by proxy, the Japanese people serve as a collective protagonist in a way that makes all the sense in the world, and wouldn't in a more western context.

Yes, it's a satire of incompetent government. But the film's true narrative masterstroke is the quiet, almost imperceptible shift it takes somewhere after the halfway point to become a sincere, straightforward drama. The tone doesn't change much, but somewhere along the way the film endears us to these hapless civil servant's plights. And by the end we're firmly in their corner. It's a slight-of-hand that arcs the movie where it ultimately needs to land as a satisfying blockbuster and a love letter to Japanese resilience and collective ingenuity.

And, finally, yes: the movie looks low-rent. Sort of. Actually, the monster itself and the sequences of urban destruction look strangely fantastic for certain stretches. A VFX mixed bag if I've ever seen one. But when it's on, it's on. And the movie's low-fi photography actually helps sell the creature effects. Yeah, there were moments in Gareth Edwards' 2014 Godzilla that took my breath due to their sheer scale. But there's really something to be said for a totally unadorned, jittery, hand-held, ground-level camera "capturing" this titan on film.

It's the totally unpolished nature of the image that makes Shin Godzilla take on the titular beast so damn terrifying. No atmospheric fog and dust, no "serious" steely color grade, no attempt to give it a "cinematic" edge by shooting on 35mm or what have you. No. Here we have Godzilla towering over us in the cold, hard light of day, like an unholy force of nature against a blown-out sky. It feels almost like cell phone footage, or news photography shot there on the day, for real. And somehow, despite boasting a mere fraction of the budget, there are moments in this film that blow anything the American films are doing out of the water by sheer visual credibility alone. I believed this Godzilla in a way I've never believed him before.

And what a design! Brings the character all the way back to his horror roots with panache. Those unblinking, unseeing eyes. The perpetual open-palm gesture. The human shapes melted into his tail. The whole thing is a mockery of sentience. A truly, deeply unholy thing taken physical form for a singular purpose: judgment and punishment. It's my favorite iteration of Godzilla by far and I would kill to see another film have the guts to embrace such a fundamentally alienating and disturbing take on the creature.

Great kaiju film. In a class of its own.


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